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Searching for ghosts in old haunts

Halloween: All-night vigils at the York Ghost Festival l A new book suggests lighter alternatives to ghoulish games.

This morning student teacher James Littlewood was attending lectures on pupil progression and how to plan science lessons.

Tonight he will pick up a torch, a low-light video camera and a cassette recorder, then head into the dark to look for ghosts.

When he is not preparing to inspire future generations, James hunts for generations long gone. He is chief science officer of Psychic and Spectral Investigations, a group dedicated to pursuing the paranormal around James's home city of York, said to be the most haunted in Europe.

With Halloween on the horizon, this is a busy time. James, 28, is involved in two all-night investigative vigils during this week's York Ghost Festival. Tonight he is searching for spirits in the 700-year-old Lendal Tower, part of the city's stone defences. On Saturday night he has a date in one of the many pubs reputed to be haunted.

So what is a man with two masters degrees in chemistry, and who plans to instil the power of rational thought in young minds, doing spotting spooks? It all goes back to his own schooldays when he overheard his friends talking about seeing a ghost.

"I remember thinking 'How do I know they're telling the truth? How do I know they're not having a game?' That's what first interested me in this,"

James explained.

"Everybody's looking for some spiritual significance to life. I have a very scientific approach. It would be nice to marry the two and say 'Here is definitive proof of an afterlife.'"

James readily admits he has no such proof yet. But he believes he has experienced things which challenge accepted science.

At his first psychic and spectral investigation seance he said the face of another member of the group changed in front of him, a process ghost investigators call transfiguration. He has experienced bizarre changes in temperature - "columns of cold that you can move your hand into" - and photographed balls of light, called orbs, which might be a manifestation of a spirit.

As science officer he has to look for logical explanations. "Ghost investigations tend to follow Ockham's Razor: the simplest explanation is often the correct one. If something goes bang in the night, it's usually the heating system. Only when you have ruled out the obvious answers is it worth considering a supernatural explanation."

If ghosts do exist, what are they? "The closest you can get to a guess is some kind of energy form in a dimension that overlaps with ours. That's serious physics."

He started his PGCE course at York university in September and hopes to get his first job as a secondary school science teacher next summer. Will he bring his ghostly experiences into the classroom?

"It would be nice to do that, but it would depend on the head - and whether we could match it to the national curriculum."

Bare bones of a tradition Halloween has its roots in the 2,000-year-old festival of Samhain, the end of the harvest and the start of the Celtic new year. The Celts believed the boundary between this world and the spirit world dissolved the night before, allowing the dead to return to earth and cause mischief. Masks and lanterns, made from hollowed-out root vegetables, were used to frighten them. awayawayaway

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